Filming the intimate and the political

An interview with Petra Costa by Delphine Jeanneret

The deputy dean of the Cinema Department Delphine Jeanneret conducted an interview with the Brazilian filmmaker Petra Costa, invited at Visions du Réel Festival taking place online from April 17th – May 2nd, 2020. Five documentary movies directed and produced by Costa, including The Edge of Democracy (nominated at the 2020 Academy Awards), can be watched on platforms associated with Visions du Réel Festival for this particular edition. Within the framework of this retrospective, Costa will also give an online Masterclass on Thursday April 30th, 2020, at 3pm, which will be moderated by Jeanneret and Giona Nazzaro (Visions du Réel). During the interview, Costa discusses her movies and her particular hybrid method, which involves the weaving together of personal content, family stories and anthropological considerations. Costa also comes back to the rise of the far right in Brazil, echoed by her latest film, centred on the deposition of the former President Dilma Rousseff.

Delphine Jeanneret : Which formative experiences were important for you before you started out as a filmmaker?

Petra Costa : From a very young age I was very fond of theater. As an actor I was trained to look for that which I would be most ashamed of, to investigate my innermost feelings and transpose them to the character I wanted to portray. I then majored in anthropology at Columbia University (USA) as I felt the methodology of ethnography was extremely useful in trying to understand Brazilian society. I started to film my ethnographic research and also fell in love with a camera and how it opened the path into people’s lives. I came back to Brazil, still uncertain if I wanted to dedicate myself to filmmaking, I did a masters in social psychology. These three areas – Theatre, Anthropology and Psychology – have and continue to inspire my work. Filmmaking was also in many ways, a tool to join these three areas of interest. My masters was about the concept of trauma, and all my films have been centered around this concept in a way or another. The first one Undertow Eyes is about the trauma of facing aging and dying.

D.J. : Undertow Eyes is an intimate portrait of your family. What made you decide to work with your grandparents? How did you work with such a close frame, creating a sensorial approach?

P.C. : Part of the difficulty when I first attempted making sociopolitical documentaries was to understand who I was to talk about the story of others. I felt uncomfortable with the position of power when portraying the other. Undertow Eyes started as a very unpretentious project. I was fascinated by my grandparents’ relationship to aging, death and love, this type of love relationship in extinction today because people don’t spend 70 years of their lives together anymore. I wanted to register it so it wouldn’t disappear like when Walter Benjamin says “Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” By spending time with them, I would get deeper and deeper into layers of the memory of their relationship, their dreams, songs they have in common, layers of their own affection, like an ”archeology of affection”. I felt I could almost freeze their intimacy. Inspired by the works of Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, I used a Super-8 camera to reach the language of my grandparents’ memories and dreams.

Elena (2012), Petra Costa


D.J. : Undertow Eyes is already dedicated to Elena, which is also the title of your second film based on the life of the actress Elena Andrade, your older sister. With this film, you create a very personal essay with family found footage, but at the same time there is a strong political background with a multi-layered narrative. How did you articulate those two narratives?

P.C. : The seed of the idea for the film Elena was born when I was 18, working as an actress in São Paulo. Going through my diaries, I found a notebook that I had never seen before. As I began to read, I came upon, in someone else’s scrawl, my own desires and insecurities; my own thoughts about art and love; the precise sensations I had experienced but never been able to express. It was as though I had written these words myself – or that some other person, in an uncanny act of prescience, had anticipated my very thoughts and feelings, committing them to the page as though in anticipation of my thinking and feeling them. The writing belonged to my sister Elena, from a few months before she died. She committed suicide in 1990, in New York, when she was 20. Her sensibility was so familiar, and yet I barely knew her. I didn’t know her inner turmoil but when I came upon her diary, I was exactly the same age she had been when she had written it. Reading her words brought a different sense of intimacy: it felt like I was having a conversation with myself, through her, or a conversation with her channeled through some deep recess inside myself. I wanted to make a film that had the structure of a fiction, but that would take us on a road movie of the mind of this woman (me) and her ghosts (the sister). I wanted to create this confusion so that the audience wouldn’t know who is who anymore. I was also very attracted to the freedom of the essay film form. At the same time, I wanted to tell the story of both countries (Brazil and the USA) as well as the other country, that of memory and trauma. I was very interested in trying to find an aesthetic to show memory: the sensation of being in a place but at the same time being in the past.

D.J. : In your third film Olmo and the Seagull you follow a young actress who has to choose between motherhood and her career. How did you build on this very organic and specific material, constantly navigating between what is real and what is not real?

P.C. : I longed to create a film with actors improvising in free-form and developing a story collectively. I found that too often fictional films were constrained by the form, and so entangled in it, that they lost the subtleties of life itself. I was invited by CPH:DOX to co-direct a film with the Danish filmmaker Lea Glob. We wanted to make a film where we would use a fictional structure to look into the life of a real person. The idea was to construct frameworks and situations that would allow our characters to investigate their memories, desires, regrets, habits, and secrets. We were particularly interested in the female subject, a day in the life of a woman carrying out ordinary tasks. Immediately, I thought of Olivia Corsini and Serge Nicolaï from the theater group Théâtre du Soleil whom I had recently met. From shooting to editing, the work of the entire team was imbued with the spirit of a theatre troupe, where many of the ideas came to life through collaboration. Olmo and the Seagull is in many ways also a continuation of the investigations I have been carrying out in my previous films. To a great extent, I approach my films as an archeology of affections, trying to reach into the deep levels of impalpable emotions. While Elena explored the process of finding and grounding oneself in the world, through Olmo and the Seagull my hope was to investigate the process of letting go of that being, and to a certain extent, making room for something else to be born, whether that be a baby or a new version of the self, be it rooted as ‘olmo’ (elm tree in Italian) or migratory as a ‘seagull’.

D.J. : In The Edge of Democracy you continue this quest between the intimate and the political. What strikes me is the very intimacy you could create with Dilma Rousseff, how you gain her confidence. How long did it take you to be so close to her but also to Lula?

P.C. : When I came back to Brazil after some time abroad making Olmo and the Seagull I was impacted by the country’s transformation. There were signs of fascism here and there, but I didn’t know exactly what it was. I started to research about Bolsonaro, who was not well known then, and I was appalled by the incitation to hatred that I saw on his videos. I decided to film the protests that were going to happen about the impeachment of Dilma. I remember the day before that protest, I had a very naive thought echoing a dream I had with Elena in which she vomited, and I cooked her vomit. Smoke was coming out of it, and a voice said that the smoke was her pain evaporating. I thought that if I could do this with Elena, maybe I could do it with the country: enter into this fascistic trauma and try to somehow sublimate it through film. It was very naive of course because it’s the proportion of a nation and I ended up being completely sucked into that trauma. I went to Brasilia and tried to film. I wrote letters to Dilma and Lula but they never responded. I was filming the everyday life in Brasilia but could not access Dilma, nor Lula. It was very frustrating, until I managed to infiltrate myself into a bus full of historians that was going to visit her in the presidential palace. I finally met Dilma for the first time and asked for an interview. It was very formal, as if she was just her armor. I knew that somehow I needed to crack that armor. I noticed that the person she was the most comfortable with was her lawyer and four months later I asked them if I could interview them together. She is very comfortable in this interview because they have a real complicity. A year later I brought my mother to meet her because I thought since they had gone through the same experience during the military dictatorship, Dilma would open and that’s what happened.

The Edge of Democracy (2019), Petra Costa


D.J. : In The Edge of Democracy, you say “Brazilian democracy and I are the same age, and I thought in our thirties we’d be on solid ground.” How did you feel while doing this film about your own relationship to your country but also in a way documenting History?

P.C. : The film ended up being a film about a political trauma of losing the ground on which we stand, which is democracy, and the trauma of losing your vision of your country as well. I understood later that this was the theme of the film. I had a sense of it, but I couldn’t really formulate it up until I saw what happened after Brexit and after the election of Donald Trump, when I saw many people writing about the same sense of grief. I understood that what I really wanted to film was the sense of grief of a citizen who was feeling the loss of democracy. Then I started to investigate this feeling in myself, in my family and in the people around me and it became the vertebral column of the film.

D.J. : How do you see your work as a filmmaker now that this film has been released and that the reception was polarized in Brazil?

P.C. : We have come closer to a condition of the past, when we had the dictatorship in Brazil. We don’t have a dictatorship today, but we have a president who is constantly praising the dictatorship or flirting with the possibility of a military coup. We are in a position of frailty and of destruction of all that was built in terms of the funding of the arts and the creation of an environment that hadn’t existed in Brazil since a long time. Last year was the best year for Brazilian cinema in years, with Brazilian films winning important prizes in Cannes, Berlin, and Venice. Our film, The Edge of Democracy was the second most watched documentary on Netflix in Brazil and millions of people in Brazil and abroad had access to it when it was Oscar nominated. The week of the nomination the government attacked me using the official Twitter account of the government to attack a citizen, something that is unconstitutional. Several artists, journalists, and most minority groups are being attacked, freedom of speech is being threatened. As soon as the parliamentary coup began, they started to rewrite everything that had happened in Brazil, erasing the fact that we had very positive years recently. They really tried to erase all that from our recent memory. For me, The Edge of Democracy is a very important act of resistance towards memory and I think whatever I do next, it will be imbued by that idea as well.